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original in archaeology.org

Peru

By BENJAMIN LEONARD

November/December 2020Alcohol Peru Wari Chicha Brewery(Ryan Williams/Cerro Baúl Archaeological Project)

Chicha brewery, Cerro BaúlAlcohol Peru Wari Serving Jar Deity Cup(Ryan Williams/Cerro Baúl Archaeological Project, Cyrus Banikazemi/Cerro Baúl Palace Project)

Serving jar (top), Front-Facing Deity cup (above)High atop a mountain in southern Peru, leaders at the remote administrative center of Cerro Baúl once entertained local elites with elaborate feasts that helped sustain the Wari Empire from about A.D. 600 to 1000. Central to these gatherings was the ceremonial drinking of chicha, a typically corn-based fermented beverage. Based on the size of the spaces where the feasts took place, archaeologists think that they held 50 to 100 guests who imbibed chicha from vibrantly painted ceramic cups. These cups ranged in size to reflect the status of the drinkers and were decorated with images of Wari heroes and gods, such as the Front-Facing Deity, and more local stylistic flourishes, including llamas adorning the deities’ faces. “One of the most effective ways to bring local elites into the hierarchy of the empire was through drinking Wari beer the Wari way,” says archaeologist Donna Nash of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who codirects excavations at Cerro Baúl with archaeologist Ryan Williams of the Field Museum. “Many of the stories, songs, and ideas that went with that probably would have been expressed using the iconography on the vessels guests were drinking from.”

Because Cerro Baúl was a provincial outpost on the empire’s edge, the Wari relied on local resources and on-site brewing to maintain a steady flow of chicha. Nash and Williams have unearthed a large brewery where high-status Wari women ground, boiled, and fermented corn and other ingredients to produce the beverage. Analysis of residue extracted from drinking cups, serving vessels, and oversize storage jars from the brewery’s fermentation room indicate that the drink was likely a mixture of corn and molle, or Peruvian pepper tree berries, whose seeds the archaeologists found in large quantities in the brewery’s trash pits. Although the Wari at Cerro Baúl didn’t have direct access to fresh water, the region’s temperate climate was a boon for chicha production, even during more arid periods. “Molle berries produce year-round in this environment,” says Williams. “Corn can be double or triple cropped, so you can get two to three times the corn from a single year’s harvest.”

The Wari’s self-sufficiency ensured that feasting events could continue regardless of political disruptions or trade delays elsewhere in the empire. The archaeologists have determined that even the cups the Wari used were made in a ceramic workshop on the mountaintop using high-quality clay from a source they controlled across the valley, rather than imported from the distant imperial capital.

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First posted at phys.org

by  Autonomous University of Barcelona

Diet of pre-Columbian societies in the Brazilian Amazon reconstructed
Human burial with incised ceramic at the archaeological site of Bacanga at Sao Luas Island. Credit: André Colonese

An international study led by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) and the Department of Prehistory at the UAB has reconstructed the diets of pre-Columbian groups on the Amazon coast of Brazil, showing that tropical agroforestry was regionally variable.

During the past few decades, there has been an increased interest in the origin and evolution of pre-Columbian economies in the Amazon. However, the paucity of human remains from this period has limited our understanding of the contribution of plants, terrestrial animals and fish to individual diets and, therefore, their role in supporting population growth and cultural changes in this region before European contact.

This new study, published in Scientific Reports, used stable isotopic analysis and Bayesian Mixing Models to reconstruct the diets of human individuals living along the Brazilian Amazon coast between 1,000 and 1,800 years ago.

They found that despite the proximity to marine resources and the evidence of fishing, diets were based mainly on terrestrial plants and animals. Land mammals and plants were the main sources of caloric intake. Land animals were also the main source of dietary protein, compared to fish.

Among the taxonomically identified animals, they found rodents such as paca, cavia or cutia, a brocket deer and catfish. In the late Holocene a large variety of wild and cultivated plants such as cassava, corn, squash, among others, were consumed.

Diet of pre-Columbian societies in the Brazilian Amazon reconstructed
The archaeological site of Bacanga at Sao Luas Island. Credit: André Colonese

“The results call into question the widespread assumption that fish was the main economic component and the largest source of protein among pre-Columbian populations living in proximity to aquatic environments in lowland Amazonia,” says Colonese. He adds that the results indicate these populations dedicated considerable efforts to hunting, forest management and plant cultivation.

“Our study provides unprecedented quantitative information on the extent to which distinct food categories from agroforestry systems fulfilled the caloric and protein requirements of populations in the pre-Columbian Amazon, and corroborates the growing consensus that these diversified subsistence economies fuelled cultural, demographic and environmental transformations in the eastern Amazon basin during the Late Holocene.”

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Eurekalert.org

Scientific Reports

Analysing three components of ceramic cooking pots — charred remains, inner surface residues and lipids absorbed within the ceramic walls — may help archaeologists uncover detailed timelines of culinary cooking practices used by ancient civilizations. The findings, from a year-long cooking experiment, are published this week in Scientific Reports.

Led by scientists Melanie Miller, Helen Whelton and Jillian Swift, a team of seven archaeologists repetitively cooked the same ingredients in unglazed ceramic pots once per week over the course of one year, then changed recipes for the final cooking event to study whether remaining residues may represent the last meal cooked or an accumulation of cooking events over the total amount of time a vessel has been used. Recipes included ingredients such as wheat, maize and venison.

Chemical analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotopic values of residues present in the ceramic pots, contributed by carbohydrates, lipids and proteins from the meals cooked, suggest that the remains of burnt food left within each vessel represent the final ingredients and change with each meal. The chemical composition of the thin residue layer formed on the inside surface of the cooking pot and in most direct contact with the food when cooking represents a mixture of previous meals, but most closely resembles that of the final meal. Further analysis also suggests that lipids are absorbed into the walls of the ceramic vessel over a number of cooking events and are not immediately replaced by the new recipes but are instead slowly replaced over time, representing a mixture of the ingredients cooked over the total amount of time the vessel was in use.

Analysis of all three residues reveal cooking events across different time scales for ceramic vessels and may enable archaeologists to better understand the various resources used by ancient cultures and to estimate the lifespan of pottery used in meal preparation.

 

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Phys.org

UNM researchers document the first use of maize in Mesoamerica
Maize, an ancient food source, was first cultivated in the Maya lowlands around 6,500 years ago. Credit: UNM

Almost any grocery store is filled with products made from corn, also known as maize, in every aisle: fresh corn, canned corn, corn cereal, taco shells, tortilla chips, popcorn, corn sweeteners in hundreds of products, corn fillers in pet food, in soaps and cosmetics, and the list goes on.

Maize is perhaps the most important plant ever domesticated by people, topping 1 billion tonnes produced in 2019, double that of rice, according to University of New Mexico Anthropology professor Keith Prufer, Principle Investigator of a team that just released new research that sheds light on when people started eating maize.

Recently published research from his team in the journal Science Advancesreveals new information about when the now-ubiquitous maize became a key part of people’s diets. Until now, little was known about when humans living in the tropics of Central America first started eating corn. But the “unparalleled” discovery of remarkably well-preserved ancient human skeletons in Central American rock shelters has revealed when corn became a key part of people’s diet in the Americas.

“Today, much of the popularity of maize has to do with its high carbohydrate and protein value in animal feed and sugar content which makes it the preferred ingredient of many processed foods including sugary drinks. Traditionally it has also been used as fermented drink in Mesoamerica. Given its humble beginnings 9,000 years ago in Mexico, understanding how it came to be the most dominant plant in the world benefits from deciphering what attracted people to this crop to begin with. Our paper is the first direct measure of the adoption of maize as a dietary staple in humans,” Prufer observed.

Prufer said the international team of researchers led by UNM and University of California, Santa Barbara is investigating the earliest humans in Central America and how they adapted over time to new and changing environments, and how those changes have affected human life histories and societies.

UNM researchers document the first use of maize in Mesoamerica
Excavations were directed by UNM Professor Keith Prufer along with an international team of archaeologists, biologists, ecologists and geologists. Credit: UNM

“One of the key issues for understanding these changes from an is to know what the change from hunting and gathers pathways to the development of agriculture looked like, and the pace and tempo of innovative new subsistence strategies. Food production and agriculture were among most important cultural innovations in human history.

“Farming allowed us to live in larger groups, in the same location, and to develop permanent villages around food production. These changes ultimately led in the Maya area to the development of the Classic Period city states of the Maya between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago. However, until this study, we did not know when early Mesoamericans first became farmers, or how quickly they accepted the new cultigen maize as a stable of their diet. Certainly, they were very successful in their previous foraging, hunting, and horticultural pursuits before farming, so it is of considerable interest to understand the timing and underlying processes,” he said.

Radiocarbon dating of the skeletal samples shows the transition from pre-maize hunter-gatherer diets, where people consumed and animals, to the introduction and increasing reliance on the corn. Maize made up less than 30 percent of people’s diets in the area by 4,700 years ago, rising to 70 percent 700 years later.

Maize was domesticated from teosinte, a wild grass growing in the lower reaches of the Balsas River Valley of Central Mexico, around 9,000 years ago. There is evidence maize was first cultivated in the Maya lowlands around 6,500 years ago, at about the same time that it appears along the Pacific coast of Mexico. But there is no evidence that maize was a staple grain at that time.

The first use of corn may have been for an early form of liquor.

Credit: Keith Prufer and Douglas Kennett. Photo contributions by Brendan Culleton.

“We hypothesize that maize stalk juice just may have been the original use of early domesticated maize plants, at a time when the cobs and seeds were essentially too small to be of much dietary significance. Humans are really good at fermenting sugary liquids into alcoholic drinks. This changed as human selection of corn plants with larger and larger seeds coincided with genetic changes in the plants themselves, leading eventually to larger cobs, with more and larger seeds in more seed rows,” Prufer explained.

To determine the presence of maize in the diet of the ancient individuals, Prufer and his colleagues measured the carbon isotopes in the bones and teeth of 52 skeletons. The study involved the remains of male and female adults and children providing a wholistic sample of the population. The oldest remains date from between 9,600 and 8,600 years ago and continues to about 1,000 years ago

The analysis shows the oldest remains were people who ate wild plants, palms, fruits and nuts found in tropical forests and savannahs, along with meat from hunting terrestrial animals.

By 4,700 years ago, diets had become more diverse, with some individuals showing the first consumption of maize. The isotopic signature of two young nursing infants shows that their mothers were consuming substantial amounts of maize. The results show an increasing consumption of maize over the next millennium as the population transitioned to sedentary farming.

Prufer noted, “We can directly observe in isotopes of bone how maize became a staple grain in the early populations we are studying. We know that people had been experimenting with the wild ancestor of maize, teosintle, and with the earliest early for thousands of years, but it does not appear to have been a staple grain until about 4000 BP. After that, people never stopped eating corn, leading it to become perhaps the most important food crop in the Americas, and then in the world.”

Researchers document the first use of maize in Mesoamerica
Ancient maize cob from Barton Creek Cave. Credit: Jaime Awe

Excavations were directed by Prufer along with an international team of archaeologists, biologists, ecologists and geologists. Numerous UNM graduate and undergraduate students took part in the field research as well as collaborators with the protected area co-management team, a Belizean NGO the Ya’axche’ Conservation Trust.

Conditions weren’t easy for the excavation teams, Prufer noted: “We did five years of fieldwork in two very remote rock shelter sites in the Bladen Nature Reserve in the Maya Mountains of Belize, a vast wilderness area that is a two-day walk from the nearest road. To work in this area we had to camp with no electricity, running water, or even cell service for a month at a time each year.”

Analysis was conducted at Penn State University, UNM Center for Stable Isotopes, UCSB, and Exeter University in the UK. Prufer was the project director along with his colleague Doug Kennett from UCSB. The project was funded by the Alphawood Foundation and the National Science Foundation. The study was conducted by researchers from UNM, UCSB, Pennsylvania State University, University of Exeter, The US Army Central Identification Laboratory, University of Mississippi, Northern Arizona University, and the Ya’axche Conservation Trust in Belize.

Now that the research is published, the team will advance it to the next stage.

“New technologies allow us to look even deeper into molecular analysis through studies of ancient DNA and isotopic analysis of individual amino acids that are involved in turning food into building blocks of tissues and energy. We already have a Ph.D. students working on expanding our work to the next generation of analysis,” Prufer said.


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